Relationship(s)/Characters: Gen, friendship, het
Word Count: 22,276
Warnings + Content Notes: apocalyptic scenario, racism, violence, aftermath of violence, minor character death, language
Author’s Notes: Thanks to hawkhandsaw for betaing!
Summary: When a cosmic radiation storm hit the earth in the fifties, initially no one knew what happened. When a mutated race of humans was born in the seventies as a result of the storm, it was hard on everyone but hardly the end of the world. That came in 2013, when the authors of the radiation storm returned to reclaim what they'd left and everything else besides. What stands between alien invaders and life as everyone knows it are the uncertain convictions and tentative alliance between the two races sharing the Earth.
Lee gasped behind her, her odd fingers snaking over Valentino’s shoulder to give her a sudden squeeze. “I can’t see it,” she said, sounding horrified. “Valentino, I can’t see it.” Valentino felt a chill; that meant it had no aura, no colors of emotional energy that Lee could see even in the worst of humanity. Only animals and objects had no aura.
The glowing thing stepped forward, its smooth, pointed face pointed towards them, each step making the pavement smoke and crack. The metahumans in its way parted and left it a clear path, afraid to touch it.
Valentino could hear Lee repeating her astonished, “Why can’t I see it?” with slowly growing hysteria. Moody was talking quietly to her, but Lee wasn’t calming down. Valentino wasn’t sure that she should. Lee had, when the paranoid had asked or demanded that she not read them, explained that, “It’s like seeing color for me. I can’t turn it off. It just is.” For Lee to not see an aura would be as if Valentino had suddenly started seeing in black and white. Not natural, not even close.
Three years ago
Kane watched her closely as she took a look around the room, Lee Vincent’s home. And Kane apparently had his own key, for reasons Valentino wouldn’t ask yet. He’d asked her to evaluate the place, to get a feel for Lee through her space. This was the hard part; a metahuman residence wasn’t like a human one, Valentino knew that, but most of the differences were rather subtle, she realized, more in the omission of things than the addition of oddities. She’d been in metahuman homes a few times over the years, but rarely one purpose-built. Yes, you got some odd doorways or furniture if the metahuman in question had an odd shape, but for the most part? You were looking for what wasn’t there. Valentino walked in a few steps and turned slowly, trying to take in the whole of the room, trying to put her finger on what was different.
“No TV,” she said and he nodded. That was the easy one, and she qualified it with an explanation. “Most people’s living rooms are arranged around the TV. Not here. All the couches and chairs are facing each other. Radio over there on the table, good speakers. All the books on the coffee table have been used, and frequently. That’s usually not the case. Analogue clocks, not digital. No digital appliances.” She looked a little closer and opened the desk. And chuckled. “Manual typewriter. Damn. I thought those went out with the dodo.”
“Not for them. Not even electronic keyboards work for most of them because of the digital readouts.”
Valentino took another sweep of the room and her eyes alit on something entirely out of place in this seemingly old-fashioned apartment. “If they can’t use screens, why does she have a modem and a keyboard?” She pointed to the offending culprit sitting on a side table, and leaned over to look at some kind of black box with a regular pattern of pinholes. A wire trailed out the back and she followed it to a closed cabinet. Inside was a computer and monitor, the latter covered with paper taped over the screen.
“The hell?” she asked, looking from the box to the computer and back again. In the context of what she knew, this was as out of place as a photograph in a blind man’s house.
“Braille terminal,” Kane said succinctly. “It’s the only way they can look at electronic information for any length of time.”
“They learn braille?” Valentino said, raising an eyebrow.
“These guys buy books by the cartload and make the heaviest use of the library than any other group in the world, but there are so many places that have gone paperless…” Kane trailed off and Valentino nodded, the stats about metahumans falling into place more solidly in her mind. While the rest of the world was going wireless and paperless, technology that might have otherwise become completely obsolete had found unexpected longevity in the metahuman community. They lived in a world without the constant bombardment of media, or at least they regulated it fiercely in their own communities. Metahumans couldn’t even walk in places like Time Square unless they looked at the ground the entire time. Some that had to cross areas like that regularly often paired with human guides; blindfolding themselves and being led to safer zones so they wouldn’t risk debilitating nausea just by looking around.
“Take a look at the bookcases. You won’t see those magazines outside of metahuman communities.”
Radio shows were their entertainment, and picture books or magazines paired with CDs or music downloads were how the dedicated stayed current with pop culture. Valentino ran her hand over the magazines on the shelf and pulled out a thick weekly issue of NBC Magazine. The CD sleeve on the back was empty, but there was a download code for the sound circled, along with a radio station frequency and a reminder of the dates and times of the shows. She flipped the magazine open to see the latest episode of Grimm. Pictures outlined every major plot point, meant to be viewed along with the soundtrack CD or downloaded file. Or, if you happened to be home, along with the live soundtrack broadcast.
“I’ve heard about these,” she said, paging through more pictures of Law and Order: SVU, The Voice, and Revolution… hmm, the last must hit a note with them. “They’re… quaint?” she offered, not quite sure what to say. It seemed so old-fashioned. It was old-fashioned. She looked on other shelves to see the picture books that linked to various movies, Avatar, The Avengers, Star Wars (all of them), Princess Bride, row after row after row of them.
“It’s how they stay in touch with what the rest of the world knows. These guys read the newspaper, listen to the radio, buy the magazines, you won’t find bigger information junkies outside of internet addicts. Those that learn Braille to be able to surf the web are always on call to provide the latest information. Think… old medieval heralds. They’re always out calling the news to everyone.”
“Sometimes from the rooftops with a megaphone. It’s awesome; I feel like the president or something,” a new voice said from behind Valentino. She turned to see Lee Vincent in the flesh, standing in the open doorway with her arms folded. Well, folded in a way that made origami look simple. Valentino couldn’t quite tell where elbows ended and her hands began, they were so small, and it was a little disconcerting to see.
Lee unfolded her arms and half-cocked both, looking like some kind of praying mantis. She wasn’t terribly tall, a little over five feet at a guess, Valentino’s estimate a little distorted by the way she bobbed on her feet. Hooves. On the TV at the station, Valentino had seen Lee was purple, her hair, skin, and eyes all varying shades of lavender, but the color seemed less cartoony and more real in person. There was real sunlight lighting her up, not studio spotlights, and the beams shone through her translucent tentacle-fingers like they were made out of glass. The daylight highlighted the scars along her shoulders and elbows, and Valentino finally figured out what had been bugging her about Lee. It wasn’t her mutations, or rather it was, but not what someone would expect. Her skinny arms, odd fingers, goat legs and hooves, and odd color were such a peculiar combination that her mind had been looking for any points of reference.
Somehow her brain had been trying to tell her that Lee should look normal in the head, shoulders, and torso, as the rest of her was so different. And while, if you photographed Lee Vincent’s face in black-and-white you’d never guess she was a metahuman, the rest of her body was not. Because of those odd, long arms, Lee’s shoulders were massively overbuilt for her frame, looking swollen and distorted against her skinny body. But, and Valentino was sure of this as she made herself accept it to rid herself of her unease, this was the way Lee Vincent had to be. There was simply no other configuration that worked for her.
“Ms. Vincent? I’m Detective Maya Valentino,” she said, holding out her hand. Lee nodded and reached out from an uncomfortably long distance away to shake her hand. It was a deliberate break in the normal social distance for a handshake, and Valentino didn’t need Kane’s sideways look to recognize a test when she saw one. Lee’s translucent purple fingers, their texture slightly rubbery, wrapped around her hand and squeezed in approximation of a handshake.
“Pleased to meet you,” Lee said, when Valentino kept her expression neutral, not registering any unease at the alien feel of her hand. “Anyone Kane vouches for is okay in my book. You done invading my privacy?”
“Hell no, I haven’t even shown her the bottom drawer in your bedroom,” Kane said with a smile. Lee snorted and waved her hand, the fingers undulating like seaweed underwater.
“Don’t be a dumbass. Detective Valentino, did Kane here tell you how we met?”
Kane put his head in his hands as Valentino shook her head and looked interested. Anything that made Kane facepalm was worth knowing.
“He accused me of murder.”
“I was a rookie!” Kane said through his palm.
“He was working the ‘corner cases’ angle that the conservatives pull out every time some anti-metahuman asshole winds up dead,” Lee continued.
“Brian Sorenson was an anti-metahuman asshole and had beaten one of your customers to death and gotten off with ‘I felt threatened’ and pulled the self-defense card.”
Valentino started at the name. “The Sorenson laws? Your name isn’t even attached to that case-.”
“I never got involved directly, I just pointed a few city attorneys in the right direction. Look, Lee had the motivation, opportunity, and the means to get Sorenson shot dead. I knew squat about Sorenson’s gambling debts at the time, and I’ll be pretty frank, Lee, you guys scared me,” Kane said.
“At least you were upfront about it. I still nearly popped you one, though,” Lee said, smirking.
Valentino shook her head in amazement. Metahumans couldn’t kill directly, but there were plenty of people, most of whom had never met a metahuman, let alone spoken to one, who speculated that they were able to do it indirectly. What if they give someone a life-threatening injury that doesn’t kill them right away? What if they get someone else to kill them?
To which Valentino had always thought, well, if those kinds of deaths didn’t trigger the metahuman suicide reflex, it still didn’t make them any more dangerous than anyone else she’d dealt with during her stint in Homicide. The Sorenson laws made those kind of self-defense “get out of jail free” claims a hell of a lot harder to pull, forcing the police to look for people actively capable of homicide before trying to stick the blame on a dead metahuman. If the metahuman in question was threatening someone with a human hitman, well, you dealt with that like any other case; you gathered evidence, spoke to witnesses, followed money, and looked for motivation.
Though maybe, at least in Valentino and Kane’s case, with some sympathy for people who couldn’t see any other way out of their problems other than death, either their own, or their enemy’s. It didn’t negate the crime, but it adjusted the circumstances.
“How’d you end up friends, then?” Valentino asked.
“I looked into Sorenson’s background after Lee gave me a pretty graphic demonstration of what she couldn’t do. Found his gambling debts, paid a call to his bookie, and found one of his bonebreakers had the murder weapon in the trunk. It was almost smart of them to dump Sorenson’s corpse in the metahuman district.”
“Bastards,” Lee muttered, and flopped down in the chair by the keyboard and Braille monitor. She reached over to the cabinet that contained the computer; it would have been too far away for a human to reach comfortably, but not for Lee’s long arms. She turned on the power and then placed one hand over the Braille terminal.
“Need your privacy?” Valentino asked.
“Unless you can read Braille, I doubt it.” Lee held her odd hand over it for several minutes while it clicked away, revealing line after line of text, and finally nodded. “Yeah, ok.” She turned to look over at the two cops, standing a little awkwardly in her apartment. “You ever learn about how they provided proof to get the Sorensen laws pushed through?”
“Can’t say that I did.”
Valentino raised an eyebrow.
“Kids,” Lee repeated. “Metahuman kids. You have kids? Or know people that do?”
“Ah… I have nieces and nephews.”
“You ever watch them when they were little? Ever have to pull them apart when they were fighting over a toy or got into an argument about something?”
“All the time. Who got the last cookie or the biggest piece of candy or who got to pick the cartoons,” Valentino said, smiling in remembrance. “They’re sweet, but Auntie Maya is always glad to give them back at the end of the day.”
Lee smiled a little sadly. “Ever watched metahuman kids?”
“Can’t say that I have…”
“Come on.” Lee jumped out of her chair and headed out the door, waving for Kane and Valentino to come with her. Up a flight of stairs to the top floor, at the apartment at the end of the hall, Lee kicked the door to rattle it in its frame. Valentino was about to protest the rudeness when she caught herself. Couldn’t exactly knock if one didn’t have knuckles, right? Someone called from inside, and eventually the door opened. Valentino managed to not quite stare at the wereform kid that answered the door, a turtle-girl with a heavy shell and thick fingers who stared up at the humans with wide-eyed wonder.
“Where’s Alana?” Lee asked softly, and the girl opened the door further, waving them into the apartment. “This is Alana Proctor’s place,” Lee said as she led the way. “She runs the local daycare, and her husband George does carpentry.”
The little girl followed them closely, ignoring Lee and dogging Valentino’s heels. Her little pink dress had to have been custom-made to fit over her shell, and her hair was tied back in pigtails with little pink ribbons dangling from the ends. She stared openly at Kane and Valentino, following them closely once they were inside, darting to one side or the other to look at them from different angles.
Her childish curiosity wasn’t much different from other kids who’d discovered Valentino was a cop and wanted to see her gun, but the staring… Valentino figured it probably wasn’t anything she hadn’t done herself when she’d seen a particularly unusual metahuman. More childish shouts rang down the hallways, and the turtle-girl raced ahead to join her playmates. Valentino saw a poster stuck to the wall, imprinted with children’s handprints (or pawprints) in paint and decorated with cut-out paper letters and glittery glue. Miss Alana’s Daycare it proclaimed.
“Lee? Lee, there you are. Give me a hand here before this tower collapses and Kelsie has a fit,” someone called from just beyond Kane.
“What, you don’t have enough Alana?” Lee said.
“Oh, heavens, I’d never heard that one before,” Alana replied, her voice thick with sarcasm. “Who is- Kane! There you are, come on in…”
More greetings and banter followed as Valentino finally managed to make it into the living room. Kids ran to and fro, the floor was thick with battered toys, and aside from the fact they were all metahuman kids, the place didn’t seem that different from any other home daycare Valentino had ever seen. In the middle, directing the traffic of a half-dozen kids was… Valentino didn’t stare, but she did smile the moment she saw Alana Proctor. She’d been bored enough in the past at doctor’s offices to have read any of the magazines on hand, even the parenting magazines she’d otherwise never touch. And she’d seen plenty of humorous drawings of a mother attending to six or seven things at once: cooking a meal, answering a phone, changing a diaper, making a sandwich, answering the doorbell, writing a check, and helping a kid into their backpack, their arms so much a blur it looked like they were an octopus.
It seemed that someone Upstairs had a sense of humor. Alana was a wereform, a spider wereform. She was small, of vaguely Asian stock, with pale skin, dark eyes, and glossy black hair. She even wore a voluminous kimono, but it was clearly less of an honoring of her heritage and more a way to possibly hide her mutation if it ever became necessary. Though she had two very normal-looking arms where arms should be, and regular-seeming legs in their normal place, six more very long spider legs must have been growing along her spine, and hovered around her like scaffolding. Instead of ending in the sharp, pointed tips like some spiders Valentino had seen at the zoo, these ended in rounded pads, the whole of the legs covered in soft, black, velvety-looking fur. It turned what could have given someone nightmares into something almost, well, cute. Small hemispheres of what looked like black glass trailed from Alana’s eyes, just over her temples and into her hair, three on each side. They might have looked like jewelry. Valentino knew they weren’t, not when Alana, not even turning her head, reached out with one spider leg and halted one kid with slick, orange frog-like skin from running headlong into the turtle girl.
“Watch where you’re going, Mikey,” she admonished. Mikey turned and ran off the other way while Valentino held back a burst of laughter.
“Come on in,” Alana said, picking up several toys with her spider legs and tossing them back into the toy chest. “You must be Valentino.”
In short order, Valentino and Kane found themselves stuck on a couch, occasionally on toy-wrangling duty if a ball or stuffed animal got flung their way by the children. Alana had barely managed to talk to them, but Valentino didn’t mind; that wasn’t what she was here for. She was here to watch the children. Within a half-hour, she was seeing what Kane had, what Lee had wanted her to see. Nothing.
No fighting. Valentino had seen her nieces and nephews get into plenty of fights, pushing or hitting each other to make some childish point, yelling and calling names when parents separated them. But the metahuman kids here were perpetually at the second stage. They yelled, but they didn’t hit. No one was yanking toys out of each other’s hands, just shrieking or crying when they couldn’t get their way. Still acting like kids, but without the children’s tussles that Valentino was used to.
She’d grown up knowing that metahumans couldn’t kill, but she hadn’t realized…
“How do you…?” Valentino trailed off in her question to Lee, when she’d managed to extract herself from helping build block towers.
“You work past it. Usually about ten or so whoever is the kid’s guardian takes them to the nearest Pit for the first time. Then they spend a few weeks learning how to hit another person. The first time… it’s like trying to hit yourself. It hurts, it’s hard. Getting to the point where you can actually push someone away can take months.” Lee let out a sigh. “It’s the only way we can learn how to defend ourselves. If you don’t learn, you can’t hit someone else even in a life-or-death situation. I’ve watched it happen.”
Valentino had too. Not in real life, but in videos during her time at the police academy, tapes confiscated from people who were better off not wasting communal oxygen. One famous one showed a group of four humans around a metahuman, a crocodile wereform with tough scaled skin and long jaws full of pointed teeth. If it had been a movie, the humans would have been in bloody tatters within minutes. But since it wasn’t, all the cadets had watched in fascinated horror as the beleaguered metahuman had snapped his jaws inches away from their throats, thrown punches that cleanly missed, in response to every punishing body blow delivered by the bats the men had in their hands. And no matter how close the metahuman came to them, he couldn’t land a finger on them. Not because he wasn’t trying either.
In the end, battered and bloody, bones smashed, the metahuman had done and all-for-nothing lunge that ended with his jaws around the throat of the chief of his tormentors. The human had suffocated, the metahuman had spontaneously died as the human breathed his last. The metahuman might have been able to knock away one or more of the gang and run away, if he’d been able to connect with anything but a fatal blow.
The Pits, well, those had a reputation of their own. They were, outwardly, metahuman gyms, modified for the odd sizes and appendages of differing types. Supposedly they also doubled as the equivalent of MMA fight clubs. Valentino figured that had to be at least somewhat true; otherwise even more metahumans would have died in attacks by gangs, like the one she’d seen, if they hadn’t been able to fight their way out. As Lee said, it was the only way they could defend themselves. Not many people called cops for attacks on metahumans, particularly the metahumans themselves. Being burned one too many times in court had done that to them.
But they had Kane. And now her.
Valentino looked over at Kane and felt a slow resentment burning inside her. This was the kind of thing she’d jumped from department to department to try to fix, except there was no solution here. And there never would be. She could try, like Kane had, until they were both blue in the face. She could shoot people like the Skinner, raise awareness, be a damn social worker. And still none of it would make a damn difference unless something drastic happened.
“Alana?” a deep voice drifted in from the other room.
“George, we have company. Kane and Detective Valentino.”
Soft footsteps sounded from a very wide doorway leading into another room, and George Proctor came into view. He was big. No, huge. No wonder the doorways in the apartment were so oversized. He looked like he could pick himself up in one hand with muscle left over. And he needed it too. Valentino's eyes widened as she took in the half-furled bat wings rising from his back, the warm brown leathery flesh exactly matching George's skin tone. Lord, his wing span must have been huge when he flew.
George looked at Kane and her and nodded, still wiping his dusty hands on a rag as several of the kids tore themselves away from their toys to plaster themselves to his legs. They weren’t afraid of him, despite him being big enough to crush them. No, they were more afraid of Valentino and Kane and the guns on their hips.
Experience had taught them that.
Valentino smiled grimly as George hoisted the kids onto his broad shoulders. She knew the stats pretty well, and Kane must have them memorized, of the number of metahumans that chose to take down an attacker with them before committing suicide as opposed to those who passively submitted to the club, knife, gun, or fists and feet of the fearful and ignorant. There weren’t that many that went down in a blaze of glory. She knew how many groups despised the metahumans for existing, who wanted to send them “back to where they’d come from,” despite the fact they’d been born of human parents in the very countries where these groups sprang from. She knew how many metahumans ended up being raised by their own kind, their own parents throwing them away out of horror for giving birth to a “monster.” Everyone knew that, or at least everyone should.
She knew that if she hadn’t seen what, or rather who, the Skinner was wearing, and recognized who it came from, he might have never paid for his crimes. She felt a flutter in her stomach as she heard the turtle girl repeat her name carefully, and getting a nod of conformation from Alana. The child looked over at Valentino, her little beak snapping thoughtfully before rushing over and shoving a piece of paper in her hands, then running away to join the others again.
Kane watched her closely as Valentino unfolded the paper to reveal a child’s drawing, a stick figure with black hair, a black gun in her hand, standing over a prone, green-clad form, red crayon wax pooling around it. The word “thanks” had been scrawled across the top, and “hero” had been more carefully printed above the shooter’s head.
Valentino didn’t swear out loud, not with children present, but Kane could see the edges of the paper crumpling in her grip.
“Talk to me,” he said in a low voice.
“I’m not their hero,” Valentino hissed.
“You were just doing your job, which is more than half the force does for them.”
Kane didn’t quite get it, not yet. “I shouldn’t have to be their hero,” she clarified, and Kane smiled in sympathy.
The thing made some deep clicking sound, followed by an almost synthesized-sounding growl, its body sparking fitfully in time to its words. The effect on the metahumans was electric. They all stared at the creature as if he’d just said something profoundly insulting. People started muttering, sounding shocked and angry. Lee, her empathy glowing brightly, her own emotions on feedback from the crowd, was the first to speak.
“Are you fucking kidding me?!”
The thing stopped its slow advance, halting in its tracks to seemingly stare at her. It growled again and Lee shook her head, the people around her echoing her gesture.
“No,” she said, eyes shining with what looked like unshed tears. Others chimed in, voices sounding horrified.
“No way.” “No way in hell.”
It “spoke” again and again, its growls sounding very abrupt, the sparks popping like strobes, as if surprised. Valentino was even more surprised that no one was puking from the flickering light. The metahumans were getting restless, calling out things like, “Shoulda said that forty years ago.” “This is our home.” “Why the hell should we believe you?”
Valentino was looking back and forth between the creature and Lee, wondering what she was missing, what Lee and the metahumans were hearing and seeing that she wasn’t.
“Why the hell would we help you?” Lee asked.
The creature clicked and growled with clear, distinct emphasis on every few beats, pops of light emphasizing its “words,” sounding like it was exasperatingly repeating something obvious. The metahumans began to move away from it, backing behind Lee and Valentino, looking sick, saddened, angry, even betrayed.
“Lee?” Valentino asked quietly.
“They… made us,” Lee whispered, eyes focused on the creature. Valentino’s jaw dropped. Made them? “They caused the Brisbane Event. They- Voice!” she called.
The crowd parted a little and Voice walked out tentatively, one of the regulars Valentino recognized. She looked like nothing so much as a young woman made from thousands of panes of jewel-colored glass. She also had a curious no-see: though Voice was mute, her body resonated words and sounds, translating them, filtering them, glowing from within as it did. The alien spoke and sparked again as Voice raised her hands, and its growls and clicks and flashes of light pinging off her body, reflecting in English. Now the thing was understandable to all through the filter of Voice’s ability. Though stilted and lacking in grammar, probably from the translation, its words were very clear. And Valentino’s eyes widened as she realized why metahumans sickened at the sight of artificial flickering lights – if they could actually make some sense of this thing’s visual language, normal strobe lights must be the equivalent of a sonic cannon, pure, disruptive cacophony.
“We caused the radiation that allowed the birth of our army-to-be. Gave you strength, speed, perception, power as inborn. Kept kill switch as living option so suspicions would be minimal as to your presence. No one sees army in those who cannot kill. Now it is your time. Your place here with us. We take away kill switch, you become army. Our army.”
“My God.” That came from the front of the crowd, and Valentino quickly found the source. Taylor Kincaid - even shorter than Lee, a wereform with lizard qualities, thick tail, head-to-toe scales in a dozen shades of green and brown, vaguely resembling a squat velociraptor minus the flesh-tearing claws. He was the one who’d raised Lee when she’d been found abandoned as a baby, and now tended to ill and injured metahumans at their clinic. He was their doctor, their healer, and trusted by most. Irascible and blunt, he was one of the few metahumans who refused to be intimidated by anyone.
“It’s been forty years,” Kincaid said, his voice sounding choked. “Forty years. This is our home.”
“Not home. Incubator. Hard to transport army, easy to grow army. Need this place for resupply, fuel, once army reaches necessary size. We take energy.” The creature reached out to a streetlight with a glowing hand, electricity sparking from it like a whip, and the streetlight went dead, making the creature glow just a little brighter. “Then we have enough to travel more, and planet is yours. You in charge then.”
“You caused a racial mutation… for a fuel stop?” Kincaid said faintly.
“For whole fleet, yes. Scouts come, make radiation storm, easy to modify genetic material of in-utero units so army will be born of them. But more refined energies on planet, what fleet needs to travel far. Need to take easily. What army is for. Destroy native resistance, then you take what is left when we leave. You ready now. Come.”
“Forty years,” George repeated, his usual soft deep voice growing even deeper with growing rage. “With us beaten, murdered, committing suicide just to defend ourselves…”
“Made you strong. Gave you reason to fight. Now you will be stronger.” Its hand started to glow in a golden haze, dimming the glow of its body. “Fight them. We take away kill switch.”
“You’re not changing me,” Kincaid called out loudly. He took a deeper breath. “You’re not changing me,” he yelled.
The words seemed to hit something deep in most of the metahumans, the deep-seated fear that they were less than human. Now to become even more different then that after the thing’s claims that the metahumans had been created. That they were manipulated to destroy the world as they knew it just on the say-so of alien invaders with the “reward” of a powerless Earth for their payment…
“No!” It came out as a ragged chorus, a sudden outburst of united anger, and Lee snarled the metahumans’ refusal with them, suddenly glowing with the rising emotion of everyone near her.
The alien cocked its head, seemingly confused, and its raised hand glowed even more intensely. Its other hand began to spark with the beginning of the lightning whips.
“You will. You have no choice. You will die otherwise.”
The thing walked slowly, face straight forward, until it came level with one of the few humans that had been in Circus, a regular Valentino only knew as Joe. It paused and turned towards Joe, cocking its head, and raised its hand even as Joe tried to stumble backwards. Lightning sparked from it like whips and fastened on Joe, touching his head and heart, pulsing like they were draining something from him. Ten heartbeats later, Joe collapsed to the pavement, eyes open and staring in death, and the thing turned back to the metahumans, slow and calm, glowing even more brightly.
My God, Valentino realized, it ate him. It had taken the electricity out of him like the others had darkened the city.
Lee’s face fell as Joe died, and Valentino lifted her chin. No choice. That was the crux of it. Metahumans had no choice except when they were going to die. No metahuman had even lived long enough to die of old age, the oldest of them barely over forty. They died at birth when they were abandoned, or at the hands of the cruel and intolerant who were frightened of them, or they killed themselves to take down a murderous enemy. That was their only choice.
They deserved better.
Also, apparently there was an alien invasion going on right now, and they most decidedly did not come in peace. The Invader’s hands glowed more brightly as its body dimmed, waiting for assent, waiting to change the metahumans into its tools.
Valentino raised her gun and emptied her magazine into the center mass of the alien, the shots shockingly loud in tense silence of the city. She’d half-expected the bullets the go through it, or explode, or hit some kind of invisible shield, but was unwilling to sit by and wait for something worse to happen to the people she’d been working with for years. Valentino had made her choice three years ago when she’d shot the Skinner, and it was a choice she could share with them.
Instead there was the sickening, solid meaty thocks of bullets hitting flesh, and the brilliant glow that had been lightning up the street went out. Valentino stared at the dim, fallen form of the alien, unwilling to concede that something so simple as a few .9 mils had worked against beings apparently capable of genetic manipulation and space travel. Electricity sparked from its body fitfully, like blood spurting from a wound, but it lay still and inert, utterly silent.
Kincaid was the first to step forward, slowly and cautiously, followed by Voice.
“Taya?” Lee asked, using her pet name for him. Kincaid shook his head and crouched touch the body. A spark jumped between them, but nothing else happened.
“Dead,” he said shortly. He looked down at the body, no less spiky and pale for no longer being amongst the living.
“Are you sure?” Valentino asked, ejecting her magazine and putting in her other with practiced, automatic motions.
“I’m the doctor around here, Val,” Kincaid reminded her, and made a sweeping gesture with one hand, encompassing the crowd. Valentino looked over and got what he was driving at. He was as much a doctor to Bruce, the granite-like bouncer, as he was to chimeric Lee, glassy Voice, or bat-like George. He was used to making life-or-death judgments about wildly differing body types every day. If he said the Invader was dead, she’d have to take it on the strength of his experience. She nodded and shifted gears to something more pressing.
“We better get under cover,” Valentino said urgently.
“The others must have seen where it landed. If they’re in communication…” Lee said, shaking her head like she’d just woken up from a bad dream. Her hysteria had dissipated with the stunning revelations, and she looked fully in control of herself again. Lee turned towards the crowd and the metahumans gave her their undivided attention. “Guys, down to the Pits, contact everyone you can, get them here before anyone else gets hurt. Go!” The stunned metahumans began to jog back indoors, many with shocked looks at Valentino. Well, they were no less shocked than she was. Between the alien’s implications and the fact that Valentino had actually killed it with a handgun, the invasion and the death of Joe, there were plenty of reasons for shock.
“Give me a hand,” Kincaid said, heaving the corpse up and over his shoulder. He was strong for his height, and Valentino didn’t have to do much to steady the jagged-edged corpse. Across the street, another regular called Mitch was heaving Joe up off the pavement. The man slid across Mitch’s smooth green shoulder, his beetle-like plates gleaming in the few remaining streetlights, his faceted eyes downcast and his steps heavy.
“How the hell did I kill it?” Valentino asked Kincaid.
“The usual way.” Kincaid was looking over its hands minutely as he stalked towards Circus, pressing at radiating lines across its palms. They looked almost inlaid, like someone had put hair-fine silver and gold wire in its skin. “It wasn’t protected against you.”
“Then why is the city dark?” Valentino asked, shoving open the door to the club and helping Kincaid lower the body to the floor. “If a handgun is all it takes, I’m in a position to know we have plenty on the streets.”
Kincaid took its hands again, looking at them closely. “Maybe for what it was doing, it was vulnerable.”
“It was,” Mitch said, grunting as he gently lowered Joe’s body to the floor. Someone hastily put a coat over the man in an attempt at decency. “It was shielded until diverted its energy to try to change us. Left itself wide open. If it hadn’t been expecting us to say yes, I don’t think bullets would have worked.”
Kincaid nodded solemnly, as if that explanation made perfect sense.
“How do you know that?” Valentino demanded.
“He knows,” Lee said abruptly, coming up behind them. “Trust me, he knows.” She looked down at Joe, then over at the alien. “Val, how many bullets do you have?”
“Just this magazine, fifteen rounds,” she said automatically. Valentino tried to remember how many touch-downs she’d seen when she’d run outside, and came up blank. But it was probably more than fifteen. She had more locked in the car, but it probably wasn’t safe to go outside. “Christ, I need to get ahold of Kane.”
Valentino whirled around, leveling her gun at the door before checking herself at the last second. Kane was standing there, blood speckling his shirt, sheened with sweat, a heavy bag dangling from his shoulder.
“Maya, what the hell is going on?”
“You talk, I gotta get things coordinated,” Lee said, and turned away from them. Her fear from earlier was entirely eradicated, replaced by a curious calm and confidence. Whatever she was on, Valentino was hoping she’d share.
“The aliens who caused the Brisbane Event to make the metahumans dropped by to activate them as their army, suck all the power from the world, and then leave them in charge of what’s left,” Valentino said, raising an eyebrow as she put another magazine in her gun. Kane blinked at her. “And I guess bullets work on them if they drop their guard.”
“Sure as hell wish I’d known that,” Kane said, with the slightly stunned look of someone who was waiting to wake up. “About half the city is dark, and anyone that’s getting in their way is getting…”
“People started running, and once I got your call… I just made it over here as fast as I could.”
Valentino knew she could have asked about why he hadn’t stayed, helped contain the riots that were probably breaking out all over the place. But she didn’t bother. This was their job, here with Lee and her people, and right now it looked like as if they were the key. One way or the other.
“Half the city?” Lee asked sharply, her voice rising from the other side of the club. She was standing next to a wereform woman with owl features, her ear tufts pricked up, her little beak moving rapidly as she spoke softly to Lee.
“From what I saw. I was driving through zones of light and dark; thank God most people are staying inside or I wouldn’t have made it here.”
“If they could do all that, why would they need an army to help subjugate the planet?” Valentino said. “But why come down here and start blacking out places without trying to get their army in line first?”
“Who’s to say they didn’t?” Kincaid said ominously. “We’re only one community. God knows what everyone else said. But think, if what it said was true, then they need the energy on this planet.”
Voice tapped Kincaid’s shoulder and began to sign rapidly, her jewel-toned hands glittering in the dimmer light.
“Right,” Kincaid said, watching her. “She got a few more nuances when it was talking through her. They don’t just need the energy for ship fuel, they eat it, and they need the tame energy we generate, not raw solar power. They’ve been traveling for a long time, and they were starving. This might have been the equivalent of rushing a buffet before paying. Or a bit of shock and awe – show us what they can do on their own before calling us in.”
“Whatever mistakes that they made, they’re going to be correcting them real shortly. Where the hell’s the Army? Or at least the National Guard? Unless these aliens managed to take out all of our military installations with their first assault, they’re going to be toast within an hour. If I can take these guys down with a .9 mil handgun-.”
“Well, if they didn’t take out the army, I suppose all we have to do is sit back and have some cocktails while we wait for rescue. Did you bring a deck of cards?” Kincaid said sarcastically.
“Don’t think we’re that lucky?”
“No,” Kincaid said flatly. “Mitch was right; if it hadn’t been focusing its power on us, I think your bullets would have bounced right off of it.” He leaned down to touch the corpse again, running his fingers across where its eyes would have been. “They’re always going to come at night, because that’s the only time they can really see the energy they want. They’re drawn to power and light, and it’s easier to see in the dark. We won’t see them during the day, because they’re going to keep following the dark side of the Earth, picking up whatever energy they can find.” He looked up at her, a brow ridge raised in advance of her challenge of his knowledge. But she just nodded at him to go on. “But we can focus that energy for them if we’re on their side. Take over the power plants, have everyone turn up everything to eleven; with us controlling the flow, they could suck us dry in days.”
Kincaid stood up straight and lashed his tail, taking a pointed look at Valentino’s gun. “I think maybe we got our one free shot of this invasion.”
Valentino swallowed. “I think you’re right.”
“Lee!” There was a banging from the upper catwalks, and everyone looked up as George Proctor, his bat wings half-furled, came thundering down the metal stairs. “They’re coming!”
“They were in communication. Damn,” Lee said, and turned back to the owl-woman. “Tell me what you got, then we’re gone.”
“National Guard, Army, no luck. No Invaders at their locations. They move in, the lightning moves on. Shots fired by others, no effect. We had the only casualty. The darkened parts of the city are coming back on-line… Invaders moving to our location.”
“Oh, I think we pissed them off,” Lee said with forced lightness, and grinned tightly. “Call Kara, tell her we’re pulling out and we’ll need an exit point above the park.” Laura nodded and put her fluffy head back down, her beak moving softly as if she were talking to someone unseen.
“How did she…?” Valentino asked.
“Her no-see, she can listen to everything, even miles away. Talk to people that distant too, if they’ve got good hearing,” Lee said shortly.
“You were holding back on us,” Valentino accused. Another strong no-see. Of course. If there were ever a time for it…
“You have no idea,” Lee said, and jumped up onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and switched it on. “We’re pulling out, getting to someplace with no strong power-point so they can’t find us. We’ve gotta take the roof route, and Kara’s going to have to get us to where we need to be.”
There was the cursing from the crowd, but no real objections. Valentino saw some sideways glances from the others, but she was still watching Lee, who was watching her and Kane.
“You think we’d bail on you now?”
Lee smiled, and then started everyone climbing up.